A Life in Stitches

Designing a custom wedding gown means creating a lifetime memory.
By Jen Cooper | Photography by Dave Cooper - 2017

There are three things Ella Pritsker knows: first, that women should feel empowered to live a life they can feel proud of; second, that she was put on this Earth to make beautiful clothes; and third, that she can make you the wedding gown of your dreams.

Growing up in Soviet Russia, Pritsker was surrounded by female artisans. The women in her life were always knitting and sewing. Pritsker would sit next to her grandmother and mother and watch everything they did.

She took careful notes while her mother made clothes. She noticed how her mother would first draft a paper pattern before cutting it out, and then pin garments for adjustments. Pritsker watched as her mother sewed along the fabric, paying attention to even the smallest details.

Feeling empowered by all she saw, Pritsker began making clothes for dolls. Once she mastered that, she started making clothes for her friends and herself. When asked how she learned to sew in those early years, she says that she simply learned by watching.

It was marriage that eventually took Pritsker to the Ukrainian city of Kiev. There, she was introduced to a dressmaker who was a friend of her new husband. Pritsker started helping the dressmaker and soon became an apprentice. That’s when she realized what she wanted to do with her life.

Pritsker left Kiev and traveled through Europe while waiting to emigrate to the United States. During a six-month stay in Italy, she studied under Old World dressmakers. Again, she absorbed everything she could. She says of her teachers, “We didn’t speak a common language but we shared a common passion—a love for sewing and making beautiful things.”

She brought all of her skills to the states and got to work. Like many immigrants, Pritsker faced challenges when she arrived—she didn’t have a support system, didn’t have any friends, and didn’t speak the language. She also didn’t have anyone in the fashion industry to show her the ropes.

But her work ethic and passion for creating custom wear for women helped her overcome those obstacles. “I really love what I do,” she says. “It’s like I’m having a love affair with work.” That love affair has led to a successful couture shop, which grew purely through word of mouth. Today, Pritsker is a staple in the Baltimore fashion world and works out of her shop, Ella Pritsker Couture, in Timonium, where a talented team of female artisans—each a former student—supports her.

When brides begin the process of purchasing a custom gown, Pritsker has one simple goal: She wants to “make their dreams come true,” she says. Her passion for creating something special for brides is palpable. “It’s going to be an experience they’ll treasure forever.”

Q: What do you tell brides who are just starting to look for their wedding dress? A: I always suggest that they go to stores to try things on. They may be surprised to change their mind about what they thought was the perfect dress. It may already be out there. Or the silhouette they had in mind may not be as flattering for their figure. Or something they didn’t think would be a good idea at first, may end up being very flattering on them. Another thing I suggest is to look through magazines. I really encourage them to do their homework—find details that they like and details they don’t like—so we have something to start with.

Q: What services do you provide for brides? A: We make custom wedding gowns and provide alterations for wedding gowns purchased somewhere else. We also make custom tuxedos for LGBTQ weddings.

Q: How much should a client set aside for custom? A: It really depends on the dress. Our wedding gowns start at $5,500 and can go as high as $10,000 to $15,000. It’s really based on the intricacy of the design. A lot of it has to do with the cost of materials—like lace, intricate beading—and the cost of labor.

Q: What kind of advice do you give when a bride comes in and needs to narrow down her dress options? A: The best thing to do is to really try some things on. I like for brides to know what they like and what they don’t like. Figure out what color and textures you like. One bride recently came in with a folder with all sorts of things that she liked. They were all very different but we managed to get most of what she loved in one cohesive design.

Q: How far in advance should a client contact you? A: About six to 12 months before the wedding. We’ve done it in as little as six weeks, but it’s best if we have a really good lead-time. Sometimes we need to find a special fabric or do a lot of beading. It’s best to give us as much time as possible so no one feels rushed. We need that time to find and source all the components for your dream gown.

Q: Do you work from a picture or do you sketch the design? A: We have worked with both. Sometimes people bring in a set of pictures and then we create a sketch based on that. Sometimes people bring in one picture of the exact dress they want, but they can’t get it in their size or color. A lot of times people come in and say, “I don’t know what I want, but these are the colors I like.” It helps me to get to know the person. I like to sit down to have a chat. I ask questions about the wedding, like location. The more we talk, the more I get to know the person, the easier it is for me to nail the design for them.

Q: Is there anything you’ll try to steer a client away from? A: One of the things we always steer clients away from is cheap fabrics. No matter what you do with lower-cost fabrics, like polyesters and things like that, or how hard you try to work with them, they won’t work like silk or French lace. The cheap fabric will always look cheap no matter what you do with it.

Q: What is the number one mistake clients should avoid? A: The biggest mistake is waiting too long. If you wait too long, you can’t enjoy the process and you’ll have to settle. And you don’t want to settle. You want to enjoy the process.

Q: It can be a delicate question, but how do you handle weight fluctuation? A: The number one question I get from everyone is, “What happens if I lose or gain weight?” People say, “I’m going to lose 10, 15 pounds.” Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, it’ll be okay. We’ll address weight loss or gain with adjustments. At the end of the day, everything is going to fit perfectly.

Q: How many fittings are typically needed and are those included in the cost of the gown? For dresses just being brought in for alterations, what does that typically run? A: There are usually three to four fittings and they are included in the cost. The cost of alterations varies depending on the work that needs to be done. Most of the time it starts at about $125.

Q: Do you also work with mothers of the bride? A: Some mothers of the bride want us to design a dress for them from scratch. Other times they’ll come with a picture. Occasionally, someone will come in with a dress and ask us to add our own design to it. If someone has a dress they like but wants us to restyle it, we can either take details off or add them. We can even completely change the top or the bottom. For instance, we can make the bottom fuller, or just the opposite, more formfitting.

Q: Do you offer a swatch of fabric for keepsakes? A: For our clients we make a shadow box with the sample, or sketch, or a little piece of lace, or a collage depending on what we have.

Q: What’s the best way to transport a gown? A: Many people like to pick their gown up in a garment bag and that’s fine, but what I actually recommend is a large, clean, white sheet. I lay the dress down on the sheet and then wrap the gown like a taco. Then it lays flat in the car. Once you’re home you hang it up. That way, it doesn’t get wrinkled or smushed like it would in a bag.

Q: Let’s talk wardrobe malfunction. We know they can happen. Any tips for handling them? A: Brides should always have a few safety pins on hand—whether it’s a custom gown or not—because things happen. Recently, I was at a wedding, and on the dance floor, somebody stepped on a piece of tulle from the bride’s dress and the bustle came out.

Q: Oh no, was it fixable? A: It could have been fixed with a safety pin, but no one had one on hand. It was okay though. By that time, everyone was happy and laughing and no one cared.